26 February, 2009

Railway workers and the state

These are some notes I made during the seminar "Workers and the state, the experience of the railway workers" organized by Tadamon on Tuesday:

* Leftist writer Elhami El-Marghani talked about the history of the railway workers in Egypt and the central role they played during the struggle against British colonialism, not least during the 1919 uprising when a strike stopped train traffic for more than a month, delivering a hard blow to the British by hindering their troop movements.

* Since the beginning of the 1980's there has been a push for privatization of the railway sector, opening it to participation of private companies. During this period wage differences within the state railways have also increased, with wages ranging from 200 pounds for the lowest paid workers, while engineers within the same company make at least 5000-7000 pounds, and top managers towards 25.000.

* Train drivers spoke about worsening working conditions, including shorter periods of rest and more overtime.

* Management always try to blame workers for accidents, while corruption, mismanagement and neglect of basic maintenance are the true reasons.

* Labour protests and strike within the state railways are always perceived by state as a political threat, even when they are about purely economic demands, because of the huge effects on society and economy when train traffic is stopped. This has positive and negative implications: While it makes it more likely that the government will give in to demands, it also increases the risk of violent repression.

* The government is dealing with railways and all public transport in a militaristic way. When train drivers go on strike, they always find themselves negotiating with state security, not the management. There was even a famous banner hung up after one strike, where the state-controled union express it's gratitute for "the presence of state security" during the strike.

* There is a state of fear among workers: "At any point, state security can come and ask for someone, and this person will not be seen again," one driver said.

* Railway workers are dispersed throughout the country, which makes any organizing around common demands more difficult. There is also a need to think about how to unit the different groups of workers: drivers, conductors, signal operators, technicians, and so on.

* One driver suggested that the best strategy for achieving unity is to demand a raise in the minimum base salary for all workers, instead of fighting for bonuses and allowances that are often specific for different categories of workers.

* There is also a need to unite the different groups of workers and civil servants that is currently struggling only for their own specifik demands. The demands for a national minimum wage of 1200 pounds that was put forward by workers in Mahalla before the aborted 6 April strike last year was a major step in this direction - and a major reason that the state decided to intervene forcefully to stop the strike.

* There is currently a campaign by civil society organizations and oppositions groups to pressure for a new trade union law that would establish the basic principles for independent unions: any group of workers should have the right to form a union without having to gain recognition from authorities, the ultimate power within the union rests with the general assembly, union elections should take place every year (not once every 5 years as is the case today) and outside the working place.

* In order to enable organized and sustainable stikes, it's important to establish some kind of strike funds.

* Train drivers described all the strikes that has taken place within the railway sector since the 80's and until now as very disorganized, spontaneous eruptions of anger.

* There is an acute need to find ways to transfer experiences and lessons learned from one generation of workers and activists to another, in order to avoid having to start from zero again and again.

* Building unions and a strong labour movement is a long-term process. It's does no good rushing out to the streets and shouting "down with Mubarak."

* An activist from the center for socialist studies emphasized the value of spontaneous protests, as they are what gives consciousness and experience. "The spontaneous protests that have taken place recently is the reason we are here today," he pointed out.

* "There's nothing wrong with experimenting," Elhami el-Marghani pointed out. "But the problem is when there is no evaluation afterwards. After the 6 April events, activists immediately decided to call for a new strike in May, without any serious evaluation of what had happened."

* It's very important for political forces and activists to support workers struggles, even if only by visiting striking workers and show support, to strenghten their morale.

* Lawyer Ahmed Ezzat made a call for supporting the workers in Mahalla that are currently being targeted by a campaign of intimidation.


  1. Translated your notes. posted on Tadamon blog in arabic